Richard Boone's cultured, Heraclitus-quoting gunslinger returns for another half-season's worth of episodes in Have Gun - Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume Two, with the last 19 half-hour shows from the 1961-62 season. It's one of the best Western series from a television era positively inundated with cowboys and gunfighters. It was so popular in fact that Boone enjoyed an almost unprecedented level of creative control; by early-1960s standards the show is almost arty and much of this season was shot far from Hollywood, not only at Western movie favorite locations like Bishop and Lone Pine, California, but as far away as central Oregon. However, its lofty ambitions are more than a little self-conscious; one episode, for instance, is entitled "Don't Shoot the Piano Player," a reference not only to rowdy saloons but also undoubtedly François Truffaut's New Wave sensation Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). Another episode, "The Coming of the Tiger," reflects the rising influence of imported Japanese samurai films. (Boone later made several films in Japan.)
CBS-Paramount first began releasing the series to DVD as full season sets in May 2004, but these were unimpressive transfers (and, by today's standards, quite mediocre) and then the label seemed to lose interest after their release of Season 3 in January 2006. However, after a more than four-year delay the DVDs resumed as half-season sets with significantly improved transfers, and CBS-Paramount seems determined to get the rest of the show out by the end of 2011.
Except for some episode-specific comments, there's not a whole lot to add to what was already stated in my review of Have Gun - Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume One. To recap: Richard Boone stars as the gunfighter known only as Paladin, and like his namesake he is a paragon of chivalry.* Between jobs he resides at an exclusive San Francisco hotel, where his breeding and intelligence are visually at odds with the dressed-in-black gunman for hire and Boone's singularly craggy features. Perusing the region's newspapers, he finds clients in need of his unique services and, in the show's famous trademark, sends them his business card: an image of a white knight chess figure with the words "Have Gun Will Travel. Wire Paladin. San Francisco."
Paladin was Have Gun - Will Travel's only major continuing character, though "Hey Boy," played by Kam Tong, turns up in most episodes often helping Paladin find new clients. The looseness of the show's premise allowed for a wide range of locations and situations, one of the program's strengths.
A big part of Have Gun - Will Travel's greatness is Richard Boone's introspective gentleman killer-for-hire. Boone's intimidating features and ruthless demeanor contrasted his soft and sensitive if gravelly voice, at odds with his appearance, and which in turn made him difficult to cast. When he became a star Boone largely took charge of his own career path. And despite his tough exterior, Paladin in most episodes goes to great length to avoid bloodshed.
The show was in the Top Five for all of its first four years. The previous season it was the third most-watched program after Gunsmoke, which immediately followed Have Gun - Will Travel on Saturday nights, and NBC's Wagon Train. The fifth season's ratings were still good, though both Have Gun - Will Travel and Gunsmoke slipped a bit as the much less interesting Wagon Train and Bonanza, also on NBC, grew in popularity. Have Gun - Will Travel's fifth season lead-in, The Defenders was highly acclaimed but less popular.
In Volume Two, Paladin acts more like a mediator with the power of binding arbitration rather than a gunslinger-for-hire. In "The Exiles" he's like a diplomat, negotiating for the release of money hidden by a Mexican count and countess; in "The Trap," Paladin mediates a murky conflict between a prisoner and local marshal.
In other shows, Paladin is more like the amused observer of other people's problems, gently, almost invisibly resolving their conflict in the end, though sometimes he's helpless to stop it from playing out its own way. In "Dream Girl," a naïve, wide-eyed gold miner (future director Hal Needham, Boone's stunt double on the series, in a surprisingly effective leading performance) strikes it rich after five long years and returns to town to marry his sweetheart: a saloon girl that doesn't even remember his name.
I've been watching Have Gun - Will Travel concurrent with several other contemporaneous Western series, notably Gunsmoke and Wanted: Dead or Alive. Though less eccentric and more conventional, I find the early half-hour Gunsmokes more effective, engrossing, and consistent, Have Gun - Will Travel, while enjoyable and sometimes surprising with its unusual, slightly esoteric approach, isn't quite as good though Boone himself is terrific.
Some episodes are more interesting in conception than execution. "The Hunt," for instance, is yet another variation on The Most Dangerous Game, with Paladin tricked into becoming the unwilling prey for a Russian prince and big-game hunter. There's an interesting twist in that when Paladin tries to report this lunatic to the authorities no one can believe the Russian dandy capable of hunting pigeons, let alone tracking a seasoned American gunfighter.
Shows like "The Waiting Room," with Paladin and his prisoner stuck in a train station waiting room where any one of their fellow passengers might be an accomplice, waiting for just the right moment to free him. The show has a real ensemble / one-act quality Boone seemed to relish.
Writers for these shows included Robert E. Thompson, Dirty Harry's Harry Julian Fink, Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, Archie Lawrence, Shimon Wincelberg, Barry Trivers, Jack Laird, Archie L. Tegland, and the teams of Lou & Peggy Shaw and Albert Ruben & Joan Scott. Boone himself directed quite a few shows, joined by fellow thespians William Conrad (who also guest stars) and actor-dancer Gene Nelson, along with Andrew V. McLaglen, Dick Moder, Frank Pierson, Richard Donner, Frank Jackman Jr., and writer Anthony Wilson.
Guest stars, some in multiple episodes this season, include Jay Novello (twice this set), Vivi Janiss, Casablanca's Leonid Kinskey, Hank Patterson, John Mitchum, Peggy Ann Garner, Lloyd Corrigan, Jack Elam, Barbara Pepper, Robert F. Simon, narrator-supreme William Woodson, Byron Foulger, James Griffith, L.Q. Jones, Harry Dean Stanton, Jeanette Nolan (twice in this set), Crahan Denton, Frank Sutton, Virginia Gregg, George Kennedy, Mike Mazurki, William Stevens, Chuck Couch, Phyllis Avery, Robert Emhardt, John Holland, Michael Pate, Shug Fisher, Milton Selzer (as Alfred Nobel), Parley Baer, Titus Moede, Olan Soule, James Hong, Teru Shimada, William Wellman, Jr., Kent Smith, Roy Roberts, Beulah Quo, Stanley Adams, Catherine McLeod, Peter Brocco, Naomi Stevens, Raymond Bailey, Ken Curtis, Robert Stevenson, Harry Carey Jr., and Billy Mumy.
Video & Audio
As stated in more detail above, Have Gun - Will Travel, in its original black & white, full frame format, appears miles ahead of its first three season sets; I hope but don't expect that CBS will eventually get around to remastering those as well. The last 19 shows from the fifth season are spread across three single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The shows run 25 1/2 minutes apiece and appear uncut and unaltered. The Dolby Digital mono is fine, and for a change English SDH subtitles are included - good for them. The discs are Region 1 encoded. There are no Extra Features
If you liked Season Five, Volume One .... Highly Recommended.
For Further Reading
Andrew S. Fischer's Have Gun - Will Travel website was of considerable help to this neophyte viewer. Check it out here.
* Have Gun - Will Travel fan Sergei Hasenecz writes, "Not sure 'namesake' is the right term. We can assume his name is Paladin, even if the character only assumed it. But for the paladins of old, it is a description, not a name, as it well may be for Paladin. While 'paladin' and its variations have been used as a title for high-level officials in some European royal courts, the sense in which it is most commonly used, and which we are concerned with here, refers to a chivalrous and virtuous knight. King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table were paladins. However, the first to be called such were The Twelve Peers of Charlemagne. They were that worthy's foremost knights, their stories recounted in The Song of Roland (who was one of the Twelve), among others works. Of interest is the fact that Boone's Paladin, while living a very strict moral code on his various quests, is rather lax when at home. He gambles, drinks, and has quite the eye for the ladies. Ah, but his were different times from the Middle Ages. Not that I wouldn't want to live like Paladin."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.